The Courage of Turtles

Hoagland-TurtlesThis article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.


“Turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned low.”  That’s the first sentence of one of Edward Hoagland’s signature essays, “The Courage of Turtles.”  In the last sentence of the first paragraph he says that through amber water they’re “big as greeny wash basins,” and thus the onslaught of metaphors and similes about turtles begins.  And not only of turtles.  Haogland describes snakes—in contrast to turtles, which he thinks are “personable beasts”—as “dryly silent and priapic…smooth movers, legalistic.” Most of the comparisons fall on turtles, however, partly because for Hoagland they “manage to contain the rest of the animal world.”

Their legs are “cruelly positioned for walking,” but turtles “keep plugging along, rolling like sailorly souls.” They stick their necks out like giraffes, have a penguin’s alertness, graze like a cow moose, remind him of a Brontosaurus “when they rise up on tiptoe,” or a lion the way they stare at the sun. They can also “loom underwater like an apocryphal hippo”—not just like a hippo, but an apocryphal one, whatever that means, though that may be easier to understand than this, when he’s describing his adult wood turtle (whose shell is “the equal of any seashell for sculpturing, even a Cellini shell”): “She can walk on the floor in perfect silence, but usually lets her shell knock portentously, like a footstep, so that she resembles some grand, concise, slow-moving id.”  Just putting those last five words together like that: grand/concise, slow-moving/id!

Hoagland1The essay, like many Hoagland pieces, is environmental at its core. Humans encroaching on their land, humans feeding them all the wrong stuff, humans misunderstanding their nature as pets—painting on their shells, for example, which stunts the shell’s growth so that their insides slowly crush them to death as they grow—all these require that “courage” to survive.

One day he’s walking on First Avenue and notices a basket of live turtles.  They’re “creeping over one another gimpily, doing their best to escape.”  Thinking they’re wood turtles, his favorite, he buys one, only to discover on closer inspection at home that it’s a diamond-back terrapin, bad news as it needs brackish water.  He tries raising him, but finds “his unrelenting presence exasperating” and finally carries him to the Morton Street Pier on the Hudson and dumps him in on a gray, windy August day.  The essay ends: “Too late, I realized that he wouldn’t be able to swim to a peaceful inlet in New Jersey, even if he could figure out which way to swim. But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.”

Hoagland seems to know everything there is to know about turtles and has showered them thickly with all kinds of wonderful, strange comparisons, so the ending is doubly, triply shocking—perhaps because it’s so matter-of-fact, so oh-well.  And it highlights what’s at the core of so many great essayists: a central tension they obsess over. For Hoagland it’s the tension between connection and disconnection.  His detailed knowledge of turtles, all those metaphors and similes—that’s connection: strong, creative, empathetic.  But then there’s the sudden disconnect.  Oh, well.  In “In the Toils of the Law” he tells about his jury duty experience, praising the idea that we’re all entitled to a trial by a jury of our peers; but by the end you realize that so many cases don’t reach a jury at all. A judge declares mistrials; lawyers plea bargain them away.  In “The Low Water Man,” a famous Sports Illustrated piece, Hoagland writes about Henri LaMothe, whose act is to dive from higher and higher platforms into less and less water, a feat that both solicits our applause, but—because of its very bizarreness—prevents us from clapping that hard, if at all.

These central tensions often lead to profound ironies, and certainly surprises, that probe deeply into the complexity and ambiguity of life.  Every good essay needs a central tension to hold it together.  For great writers these central tensions, as I said, are obsessions—and the greater the writer, the greater the obsession, it seems—but they are also the font of their insight and creativity.  Connection-Disconnection is everywhere in Hoagland, and perhaps nowhere more bizarrely and movingly than in “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain.”

 This article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.  Go to the series’ Lead Post.

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Students “Write” Race and Diversity

Still from "Race and Video Games" project

Still from “Race and Video Games” project

This post indexes several student projects on race and diversity I’ll feature on this site, partly as examples to other students about what their peers have done…and what they could do, too.  Of the first three below, two came from my English 315 – Advanced Writing class, and the third from a group of students wanting to make diversity an important issue in a first-year intro-to-college class required of all new students at North Central College.

What’s “advanced” about Advanced Writing is the audience students they aim for.  They don’t write more “advanced” research papers because, by-and-large, only their college professors read them.  How do you reach a broader audience?  It’s not that you don’t do solid research, but that research is often embedded in stories, our own or someone else’s. Then there’s the medium, which—these days—seems to involve videos and podcasts more and more.  It’s “writing” that teaches and entertains, entertains to teach, is designed to entertain and teach.

Architect-Heal“Design” brings us to the popular TED talks: “TED” = Technology, Education, Design.  ”If you want to know what I’m after,” I tell my students, “watch my favorite TED talk over and over and over again, absorbing its flow, its meaning and spirit.”  It’s architect Michael Murphy’s “Architecture That’s Built to Heal.”  He begins with a personal story—circling back to it at the end—about how working on a house helped heal his father.  In between he teaches us about what he calls “Lo-Fab” architecture, something he developed while building hospitals that actually heal people instead of making them sicker.  And the story has a profound arc.  It begins with how architecture can heal our bodies, and ends, just before he returns to his father’s story, about how it can help heal our spirit—not just of an individual like his father, but of a whole nation like ours.  Which brings us back to race.  What, among many things, does our nation need to heal from—need to actively seek out healing for?  Lynchings, for one.  I have often said that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race, and the tragic history of lynching, the horror and shame of this, is one thing that keeps us silent, or talking at each other, not with each other.  One of Murphy’s architectural projects intends to heal this deep wound. You can watch his TED talk over and over HERE, and enjoy student work on race and diversity at the links below.

Note: Some of the work below uses software students find and use on a trial basis, thus, for example, the water mark on Asma Al-Oldaina’s video below, which also features part of a TED talk.

Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Notes on Space and Growth


This article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.


Bonnie Rough’s “Notes on the Space We Take” may be my students’ all-time favorite essay. (You can read it HERE.)  A term later, a year later, they all remember.  ”Yes, that essay, about the hermit crabs, and RV’s, and fish tanks. I loved it! It was so random”—this last phrase being one I’ve often heard applied to friends: “I love him. He’s so random.”

This commentary on her “Notes” is the first of several pieces I’m writing on The Arts of the Essay, and in the series’ lead post this feeling of randomness—like the randomness of a wonderful conversation with a friend—is one of the main features I note about many great essays. That random-feeling surface, however, often co-exists with an underlying structure that’s fairly tight, a structure often not apparent, but once you notice it you realize why the essay is so great, why it stays with you so long.  The tension between the sometimes loosey-goosey surface and the stricter structure beneath is one of the things which gives the essay substance.

HermitCrab1Bonnie Rough’s essay begins with this sentence: “The womb is the smallest place in which a human being may live.”  It then proceeds to talk about babies weighing between 7-8 pounds—”about the same as a gallon of milk”—and by the end of this first section we’ve talked about Buster Keaton, “a world-record setting paddle fish caught in Montana in 1973,” the height of a newborn giraffe, before in the next section she talks about hermit crabs, then RV’s, then how NASA uses apples to illustrate how much usable land we have—with a side note on the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest home—then how to calculate how many fish you can safely put in a fish tank, freak shows featuring tiny people, hairy people, legless people, albinos, before she ends talking about claustrophobia.  It’s wonderfully interesting—and seemingly random, until you catch her last two sentences, and you hear an eerie echo of the essay’s very first one: “The tiniest coffin available is made for premature infant deaths. It is 10 inches long and 5 inches wide.”  These send you back to look for deeper structure…and you find it.

RV1Bonnie Rough divides “Notes on the Space We Take” into eight sections which mirror each other.  Section 1 clusters notes about the space we take up at birth, which mirrors Section 8, which clusters notes about the space we take up at death.  Section 2, about hermit crabs, finds its mirror in Section 7, where she talks a lot about small people.  Section 3, about RV’s not only finds a mirror image in Section 6, a section titled “The urge to migrate is deeply rooted in human ancestry,” but also ties back to hermit crabs, who not only migrate from home to home, but, if you think about it a second, their shells also resemble RV’s.  In Section 4 she explains how NASA uses the metaphor of slowly eating and peeling away an apple to illustrate how much arable land earth contains.  Turns out it’s just the skin of 1/8th of the apple. Turns out, in the next section, Section 5, that how we usually calculate how many fish can fit in a tank—one gallon per inch of fish—is pretty useless.  So she provides formulas she got from three scientists, one of which is for “peaceful fish:” L (length of tank) = FL (maximum expected fish length) x 4.

FishTank1The essay’s center sections, 4 and 5, not only mirror each other, but also tell us something that reverberates throughout the entire piece: between birth and death we really have very little space to live in and grow on, but if we calculate realistically we can get in as much life and growth as possible.  How? Migrate.  Get out in the world, see things, travel through as much space as you have.  Don’t let your “homes”—your routines, the normal way you see things—pin you in.  The Biltmore Estate, large as it is, isn’t big enough for the human spirit.  If you think it is, you’re prematurely dead.  True, it’s a pretty big coffin, but a coffin nonetheless.

 Go to the Lead Post in the series The Arts of the Essay.

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